Rahane and Pujara were criticised for their slow approach on Day 4 of the Lord's Test, but their approach was right and the criticism was wrong.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing.
India won the Lord's Test in one of the best come-from-behind victories in the history of Test cricket. It was the bowlers that won them the match, with bat and the ball.
But in hindsight, people also realised the importance of the Pujara-Rahane partnership after the match.
It wouldn't have been the case if India had drawn or lost the Test. It wasn't the case while they were battling it out in the middle on Day 4.
India had lost the in-form KL Rahul inside 10 overs with the score reading just 18 when Pujara arrived at the crease. Wood was ramping up good pace. Anderson was bowling with rhythm. An over later, Wood had snapped up Rohit Sharma. Pujara had started off tentatively. The lack of confidence was palpable due to the dearth of runs of late. One ball jumped off the surface off Anderson and hit him on the glove as he looks to fend. Another took his outside edge but fell short of the slip cordon. India were technically 0/2.
Kohli got them into the lead with his trademark cover drive off Wood. He was busy at the crease looking to keep the scoreboard ticking.
Pujara was cautious in the middle. Each ball was a battle. Edges beaten, solid defenses, nervy defenses, inside edges and a confident drive, Pujara finally got off the mark off the 35th ball with a tuck to the leg side for a single. The Lord's crowd stood up and applauded.
Kohli raced to 20 off 30 balls. Then he nicked one off Sam Curran to the keeper. And all of a sudden India were in a tricky situation. Technically 28/3.
Rahane got together with Pujara, the two senior men who along with Kohli have formed the backbone of the Indian batting line-up for some years now. The two added 49 off 28 overs in post lunch session. The talk about the slow scoring had already started. And as the partnership went along, the criticism grew louder on social media.
"Both Pujara and Rahane have been great servants of Indian cricket but it is time for them to go, nervous starters both and now they create a panic in the team with their over cautious approach," one tweet read.
"Rahane and Pujara are just saving their careers. With this kind of approach you can't win matches," read another.
There were many more.
The debate had started and questions were asked. Whether they are taking the win out of the equation by eating up time? Whether they are trying to save their careers? Shouldn't they be showing some intent to put the pressure back on England and not let them dominate? Shouldn't they be looking to go for a win?
The duo added 100 runs for the fourth wicket, off 297 balls before Pujara (45 off 206) got a snorter from Wood which popped up off his gloves to third slip and soon Rahane (61 off 146) pushed at a straighter one off Moeen and edged it to the keeper.
Yes, they got out at a crucial juncture but they had added 100 vital runs which would go on to lay the platform for Bumrah and Shami to deliver the knockout punch.
Their approach wasn't wrong. When they got together, India were in a bit of trouble, technically 28/3. With a lengthy tail, there was always the added responsibility on the top and middle order batsmen to step up. There were just two recognised batsmen (Rahane and Pant) and an all-rounder (Jadeja) to come with four bowlers after that. The need of the hour was to steady a shaking, rudderless ship.
England bowlers were bowling with discipline and getting them to move off the pitch. Anderson, Robinson, Wood and Curran were belting out probing spells. And they even turned hostile with the bouncer barrage. It was relentless. Moeen Ali got some turn as well along with variable bounce to plant gremlins in the minds of batsmen time and again. It wasn't easy.
Pujara and Rahane calmed things down amid the storm. They allowed India to take a breather. Defied England and broke their momentum.
Imagine if Rahane and Pujara had got out with just say around 80-run lead, trying to force things?
There would have been chances that India might have folded up way before what they managed to achieve. Because one important factor was that England had the momentum as well. Yes, the tail had done well in the first match but how much can you trust them to perform consistently? There were lessons from India's first innings as well. From 267/2 they were all out for 364. The last four batsmen had scored a combined eight runs with three of them being ducks.
Safety first approach was paramount. If India had folded early, it would have given England an easier route to victory. The first step was to resurrect and then think about the victory because India were on the back foot. Piling on runs does create pressure on the opposition. It does create frustration. It was a step by step process. Collect enough ammunition, load the gun and then fire.
And it's not as if Pujara and Rahane had gone completely into a shell. They did take those singles and picked up that odd boundary here and there. They showed much more intent post-tea. There were 48 singles and three twos run in the 100-run stand. Rahane grew in confidence as his innings progressed and played a range of shots from sweep to pull, to get to his fifty. Pujara was still looking a touch tentative but most importantly he was still at the crease. Pujara's first ton of deliveries was met with a round of applause and even a bigger one on his 200th ball.
What needed to be taken into account was the form of the two batsmen as well. They had been under pressure to score runs. Pujara had averaged just 19.11 in his last ten innings prior to this Test which included just one fifty-plus score. Rahane had averaged 20.61 with a century drought that had extended to 13 innings. In this period he had just one fifty-plus score. From 2015 to 2019 the Pujara-Rahane partnership had averaged 55.05 but the number has sharply plummeted since 2020 and prior to this series they had averaged just 19.66 with no fifty-plus stands.
Ajay Jadeja and Sanjay Manjrekar made some very good points in the extra innings show on Sony Liv at the end of fourth day's play. Jadeja said that he wouldn't have expected anything more or different from the two senior players.
"It's pretty much the same as what we have seen in the past. Both of them in the partnership, Ajinkya was much quicker than Pujara," Jadeja said. "Throughout their careers they have gone the same way. Normally in a partnership if you are looking at Day 4, Day 5...we were having this conversation indoors as well, should there be a message that should go out now, to change something? If there is a case of a guy who has played 88-90 Test matches, who's been around (for a while) and the other guy who is sometimes the captain of the team, if they both don't feel that we can do anything different, in case you send them a message or you want them to play differently, then it will be really tough. They have both gone through a tough phase, not just tough, very lean period and a lot of pressure they've had. So it does play on an individual's mind. But I don't expect anything more or different from these two. What I saw today is what I've seen them doing for 80-90 Tests."
Manjrekar added that it would have been risky had the pair been asked to do something different.
"Also, it would have been hazardous for the captain at that time to sort of put some kind of pressure for them to play quicker," Manjrekar said. "Because that would have been really difficult considering their state of mind and the way the last few weeks have gone. In form players like Rishabh Pant, who has now cemented his place in the side and is playing slowly and the captain wants him to bat quicker makes sense. It would have been a recipe for disaster if Pujara and Rahane were asked to expedite things."
Also, India had players in Pant and Jadeja, who can up the aggression, accumulate quick runs and change the momentum. They could have made up for the overs and time.
When Pujara and Rahane got out, England still had a slight upper hand. And they almost had a firm grip when Rishabh Pant departed the next day. But then, the bowlers took over the mantle, and then they were unstoppable with the bat and ball. The Pujara-Rahane stand wasn’t the match-winner but the catalyst.
Pujara and Rahane battled for around 50 overs. The entire England team folded up in 52 overs. It says a lot about the importance of the duo's contribution. The second innings performance would have injected a lot of confidence into the duo and it bodes well for India heading into the third Test.
India played what was in front of them. And that was the right approach. A lost match would have put them behind in the series. A drawn match would have meant that they would not have been playing the catching up game when they reach Leeds and have three more matches to make an impact.
In hindsight, if India had drawn or lost the Test, Pujara and Rahane's approach would have been pored over, dissected and criticised, again.
But in hindsight, everything went perfectly for India. Instead of getting all out, they declared. They didn't fall short of time, had 60 overs to bowl England out, they did it with eight overs to spare. And made people talk about the importance of the Pujara-Rahane partnership.
Hindsight is indeed a wonderful thing.
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